Highs and Lows of Student Experience through COVID-19

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On the 10th of March 2020, students were carrying out their regular routines on campus, attending lectures, studying in the library and participating in club activities. The next day, the World Health Organisation announced a global pandemic and soon enough students found themselves transferred out of their current institutions — into Zoom University.

When this happened, we saw an 800% increase in log-ins and over 750,000 interactions in the month of March alone. A student engagement officer from St George’s, University of London noted how “with the uncertainties regarding Covid-19 escalating over the last week, students have flocked to Unitu to voice their concerns.”

In addition to this engagement boom, we also noticed across the HE landscape that although students had strong opinions about universities’ responses to the pandemic, they nonetheless felt unengaged and unconsulted during the making of those policy decisions. With this backdrop, our team felt impassioned to help universities clearly understand the student experience through COVID-19.  We set up a research project to interview students across a number of universities. Our aim for this research project is to help universities make better decisions on improving student experience, based on the experiences students had during lock down.

This article (one of a series of topics and themes from our interviews) give universities some insights (both the highs and the lows) on what it’s like to be in tertiary education during a global health crisis.

The lows

1. Online learning

When the pandemic first happened, students reported that they had been fed with a flood of confusing, and at times conflicting, information. “There were days where we had like 10 emails,” said Konstantinous. 

As things started to settle down and universities swiftly turned to remote learning, students were forced to adapt to this new reality. However, not everyone found it to be an enjoyable experience. Alexis who was based in Singapore, explained the struggle that she and other international students faced when trying to keep up with lectures given the time difference. “[We] often had lectures at 10 pm, but I just had to deal with it because we have no choice.” 

Alexis also mentioned how it was much easier to disengage from the teaching. “You could just zone out halfway through” in an online seminar, she said, as opposed to an in-person lecture, where “someone’s asking you a question to your face, you can’t really ignore it.”

Therefore, if universities are to deliver online learning, they must strive not to merely replicate in-person lectures and (definitely) not upload pre-recorded lectures. Instead, universities should train and support their academic staff in utilising the technology they have to keep students engaged throughout. For instance, students reported how some lecturers have creatively used the polls or voting functions on Blackboard.

2. Motivation slump

Another common concern expressed by almost all of our interviewees was the significantly lower levels of motivation. Konstantinous says, “Motivation to do anything just dropped, like from it existing to nothing. There were days when I did actually no work at all… Productivity just plummeted… It was not a fun time, and it still isn’t.” 

A major contributing factor to this was the significantly lesser opportunities to socialise. Valentina noted how in university, “you have many [opportunities] in the day to make and build relationships with your peers and with your teachers.” But with everyone quarantined, meeting new people has gotten a lot more difficult. The loneliness aspect was echoed by Alexis, who said, “You just feel like you’re dealing with this alone, even though [you know] everybody’s dealing with the same thing.”

If most learning would be conducted remotely in the upcoming year, universities and students unions must work hard to ensure that students will still have opportunities to engage with other students and participate in various extra-curricular activities. For instance, a department in University College London (UCL) recently created a virtual common room, where students can freely pop in and out to connect with their peers from across the globe. Other ideas could include virtual pub quizzes or town hall meetings.

3. Beyond COVID-19

Some students also expressed worries about the future. Notably, students in courses with a heavy practical element felt that the current situation makes learning key skills virtually impossible. This was expressed by Aphra, a medical student who had her practical examination cancelled. Moreover, due to the fact that many first-year examinations have been cancelled or replaced with coursework, students were concerned that the lack of experience in an actual, physical examination would put them at a disadvantage in later years. Natalie mentions how seniors warned that when it comes to physical exams, “there’s kind of a different schedule that your body’s acclimated to because you have to get up, go to the centre and prepare.” She says, “I’m very worried about how it will be when I go into it next year, as I have a lot more at stake in the second year.”

These are skills that can only (or majorly) be acquired from an in-person experience, and would be almost impossible to replicate even with the best online education. It is imperative that universities identify what those missing skills are, and provide students with further support to bridge that skill gap when things are back to normal. For instance, universities could provide extra practical skills sessions or host examination workshops.

The highs

1. Personal development

However, it wasn’t all gloom and doom for students. On the bright side, many took a sudden change in lifestyle as an opportunity to build upon personal and professional development. Unsurprisingly, students felt that they had become more adaptable and self-disciplined. Alexis said, “I learned that I  am actually able to adapt to unexpected circumstances. Because at the start, I thought, oh God, I’m never going to get used to this… but it’s a lot better [now] than it was two months ago.”

Some reported that the experience taught them not to take certain aspects of university life for granted, as Elizabeth gave the example of being “able to go and speak to my lecturers whenever to get my questions answered.”

Abi, who was already enrolled in a distanced learning course, was working part-time along with her studies. However, since the pandemic started, she was unexpectedly furloughed, but she took the opportunity to enrol in extra modules on her course, which she would not have had the time or energy to do otherwise.

Going forward, universities should have think about what they can do more in terms of encouraging the development of soft skills and personal qualities, even in a virtual environment.

2. Online learning (again)

Moreover, whilst online learning certainly did not appeal to everyone, there were a few students who found it more enjoyable than in-person learning. As Konstantinous observed, “I think there’s a consensus in my cohort that we prefer online lectures. The lectures are a lot more relaxed. One of the lecturers, when we took a break, lowered his camera and we could see his dog.”

Some have predicted that online learning is here to stay, post-COVID. Universities should bravely embrace this new form of teaching and finally realise that in certain circumstances (e.g. for commuting students or students with public speaking anxiety), it may be the preferred option.

3. Rise of the online community

For some, the pandemic provided their peers with the prime opportunity to establish and develop a thriving online community, which will undoubtedly come in handy if learning goes online next year. Abi, who is a course representative, reported how her peers took to Unitu to support one another during this difficult period, “some of the new students that we’ve got have set up study groups from [Unitu] and reaching out to their students even though they’re not necessarily the rep. We had people sharing motivational videos… and a list of places you can go for reading materials, and it’s very much like, anyone can post… their thoughts, ideas and any questions.”

As mentioned, universities and students unions must do everything they can to help support the building of relationships and communities online. Here at Unitu, we have had numerous success stories of students coming together on our platform and supporting each other virtually. And this was way before COVID-19. To find out more about how Unitu can support the online communities at your university, request a demo here.

Many have theorised that in the post-COVID era, online learning is here to stay. If that’s the case, universities should take active steps to engage students in consultations and figure out what has worked and what hasn’t. Importantly, it should be understood that whilst online learning definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, there are significant advantages and valid reasons why some students prefer it.

Embrace online learning. But embrace it with the student’s voice in mind.

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